The Meaning of our Divine Services, part ten: Divine Liturgy, “The Epistle and Gospel Readings”


DSC 0534Up until the eighth century, the daily readings commenced with Old Testament readings, both from the Torah (first five books of the Bible) and from the Prophets. The Church, in creating a liturgical calendar of readings from Scripture, followed the Jewish Temple practice. We can witness Christ participating in this liturgical cycle of readings in the Gospel of Luke: “And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up: and He entered, as his custom was, into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And there was delivered unto Him the book of the prophet Isaiah” (Luke 3:16-17). When Christ simultaneously read and fulfilled this prophecy of Isaiah, He was reading the Prophecy that was appointed for the day. As the Church came to recognize the four different Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as the Apostolic epistles also as Scripture, those readings were integrated into the cycle of readings, with the exception of The Revelation (or Apocalypse) of St. John, which was finally accepted into the New Testament canon only after the cycle of what we now call the New Testament readings was established.

We no longer read the Old Testament in the Divine Liturgy, except for in Holy Week and in Presanctified Liturgies in Great Lent, but a remnant of that reading remains in the antiphonal chanting and singing of the Prokeimenon, which consists of selections from King David’s Psalms that previously followed the Old Testament readings. The reader, one of the ranks of minor clergy of the Church, follows the Prokeimenon with the reading of the Epistle, during which the deacon censes the Altar, the clergy, the reader, and the faithful. The worship of the Lord is prophesied by Malachi (“in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the Gentiles, saith Jehovah of hosts” [1:11]) and, in the future Kingdom, by St. John (“And another angel came and stood over the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should add it unto the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne” [Rev. 8:3]). As a Liturgical action, the censing of the Altar and the people before the Gospel reading, the priest’s bestowal of Christ’s peace on all, and the deacon’s call to attention all purify and prepare the church and the faithful in a complimentary fashion so that God’s Word may be received. In the Greek practice, only the Gospel, resting on the Altar Table, is censed. As the deacon concludes his censing, the reader finishes his reading and leads the faithful in the singing of the Alleluia verses, also drawn from the Psalms. Alleluia is Hebrew for ‘praise God’: “For in Hebrew AL means ‘He comes, He appears;’ EL means ‘God;’ and OUIA means ‘Praise and sing hymns,’ to the Living God” (St. Germanos’s Ecclesiastical History qtd. in Hatzidakis 140).

While the deacon is censing the Altar and the faithful in preparation for the reading of the Holy Gospel, the priest prays the following prayer that entered into the Liturgy sometime between the tenth and twelfth centuries: Shine forth within our hearts the incorruptible light of Thy knowledge, O Master, Lover of mankind, and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of the preaching of Thy Gospel teachings [. . .] Note that the priest prays that our mind may be opened so that we can understand the Gospel. This understanding is no understanding if it is strictly cognitive: only by following the Lord’s teachings will we demonstrate our understanding. In fact, it is understanding within the hearts of the Ephesians for which the Apostle Paul prays: “having the eyes of your heart enlightened” (Eph. 1:18). The priestly prayer continues:

[. . .] instill in us also the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all lusts of the flesh, we may pursue a spiritual way of life, being mindful of and doing all that is well-pleasing unto Thee. For Thou art the enlightenment of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee do we send up glory, together with Thine unoriginate Father, and Thy Most-Holy and good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Christ, revealed to us in the Gospel that we are about to hear, is our enlightenment, an illumination of the heart about which St. Paul reminds the Corinthians: “Seeing it is God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, who shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:6).

The deacon, who is about to proclaim the words that transmit this light, stands before and to the side of the Altar Table ready to receive the Holy Gospel from the priest, asking the priest, Bless, Master, him who proclaims the Good Tidings of the holy Apostle and Evangelist (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John the Theologian). The priest blesses the deacon as he hands him the Gospel, the deacon kissing the priest’s hand and the Holy Book as he receives it: May God, through the intercessions of the holy, glorious, all-praised Apostle and Evangelist ______, give speech with great power unto thee that bringest good tidings, unto the fulfillment of the Gospel of His beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The reading of the Holy Gospel from the Ambo is preceded by the blessing of Christ’s peace upon all from the priest and the deacon’s command, Let us attend. It is important to take seriously this call to attention, for the Gospels reveal that Christ Himself clearly takes it seriously. Fr. Emmanuel Hatzidakis notes that the command to ‘obey’ in Greek (ypakouein) has at its root the command to ‘hear’ (akouein) (145). Throughout the Gospel, we can see where the Lord likens listening to Him with obeying Him. (Mt. 17:5, Lk. 11:28, & Lk. 16:31); He concludes His instruction to those who listen to His parables, for example, with, “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9). The 4th century pilgrim to Jerusalem, Egeria, observes how moved the faithful in Jerusalem were during the reading of the Lord’s Passion: “At the beginning of the reading [of the Gospel] the whole assembly groans and laments at all the Lord underwent for us [. . .] it is impressive to see the way all the people are moved by these readings, and how they mourn. You could hardly believe how every single one of them weeps” (qtd. in Taft 76). During the reading of the Gospel, remember that all are standing, as there were no pews or chairs in the ancient Church.

After chanting the Holy Words of the Lord, the priest blesses the deacon and receives the Gospel back from him as the people doxologize God, singing Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee as they bow. The priest or deacon then begins a homily on the Scripture.

After the reading of the Holy Gospel, the priest teaches the faithful the Church’s understanding of the passage just read. This is a daunting task for which the teacher will receive a strict judgment, according to St. James, the brother of the Lord and first Patriarch of Jerusalem: “Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing that we shall receive heavier judgment” (James 3:1). The bishop, usually seated (the customary position for teachers in the Jewish tradition) on his throne behind the Altar Table, always delivered the homily in the ancient Church before the fourth century. But, by the fourth century, priests began assuming the responsibility of delivering the homily, often with multiple homilies delivered by all serving priests with the final one given by the seated bishop should he be present. In the late fourth century, Egeria notes that the purpose of the homily is so “that the people will continually be learning about the Bible and the love of God” (Egeria’s Travels, 125). To Egeria’s observation, we can add that the bishop or priest delivers the homily so that the people can be learning about the Bible and the love of God in the Godly-inspired manner that represents the Mind of the Church. This, in fact, is one of the principal responsibilities of the bishop and it is for this reason that the consecration of a bishop takes place in the Divine Liturgy immediately before the reading of the Holy Scripture. Furthermore, this consecration takes place with the candidate kneeling before the Holy Altar, the open Gospel placed upon his neck as a yoke. The method of his consecration indicates his responsibility to teach the people. This responsibility is delegated to his priests who deliver the homilies in the parishes under his guidance. To this day, the bishop’s homily on Pascha and Nativity are read in local parishes even when he is not present.

The homily is a task for which ordination is required because to properly understand Holy Scripture, we must be Divinely inspired. This is not to say that every word that proceeds from the mouth of a priest is Divinely inspired, but the priest is educated in how the Divinely-inspired Fathers of the Church understood Scripture. Fr. John Romanides observes, “those who correctly read and interpret this experience of the deified be those who belong to the community of those deified in Christ” (Dogmatic and Symbolic Theology of the Orthodox Catholic Church, 175). The Fathers are those saints who understand the Scripture in spirit, not only with the mind but also with their heart. They provide the context within which our Church comprehends the Divine sayings and actions of Christ. St. Symeon the New Theologian notes how “a person may read the Scriptures and commit them all to memory and carry them with him as if they were but one Psalm, and yet be ignorant of the gift of the Holy Spirit hidden within them” (Discourses XXIV, 261). Fr. John Romanides, again, reiterates the importance of a correct understanding of Holy Scripture:

The Bible itself is not the uncreated glory of God in Christ nor His glorified humanity and therefore the Bible is not revelation. The Bible is not, for example, Pentecost, but about Pentecost [. . .] Pentecost is for man the final form of glorification in Christ, but not only a past experience, but rather a continuing experience within the Church which includes words and images and at the same time transcends words and images. (“Critical Examination of the Applications of Theology,” 42)

Within the context of the Divine Liturgy, the homily serves to prepare the hearts of all to receive the fullness of Christ in the Eucharist: “For only with transformed hearts made tender by feeding on divine truth can the people take the next step—to advance to the altar of God and receive the life-giving Mysteries” (Farley, 44). It is through this Mystery that we approach the true revelation of Christ by communing with Him. The largely Russian practice of moving the homily to after the Eucharist disrupts both this process of preparation and the coherence of the Liturgy of the Word that includes both the reading and the teaching that accompanies it.
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